Residents hold their documents as they stand in a queue to check their names on the final list of National Register of Citizens (NRC) at a NRC Sewa Kendra (NSK) in Burgoan village in Morigoan district on July 30, 2018. India on July 30 stripped four million people of citizenship in the northeastern state of Assam, under a draft list that has sparked fears of deportation of largely Bengali-speaking Muslims. Photo: AFP
Residents hold identity documents as they line up to check their names on the National Register of Citizens in a village in Morigoan district in Assam in July 2018. Photo: AFP

Most strains of nationalism prefer homogeneity over heterogeneity. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political arm the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in India, are no different. They seek to create a Hindu nation out of India by erasing differences from a society that is steeped in diversity.

Similarly, production of cultural homogeneity was one of the mainstays of the Assam Movement of the early 1980s in the northeastern Indian state Assam. It is through this movement that a singular, homogenous Assamese self or identity came to be projected. This projection, which continues even today with different agents and agendas, inevitably ignored the heterogeneous forms of life and culture in Assam.

In such a milieu, the intellectual space also sided with such an understanding of culture or provided impetus to it. With the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in practice, this homogenization of the intellectual space needs sufficient attention.

Homogenization of intellectual space, writes Ernest Gellner in his book Nations and Nationalism, is possible when a culture starts to assert control over the state. This domination suppresses the heterogeneous ways of life and culture. By imposing a homogenous cultural world, preferably of a “high culture,” it distinguishes itself from what it considers an inferior culture.

In this process, there is a conscious drawing and redrawing of boundaries – of an insider and an outsider. Such a practice is further supported by a bunch of intellectuals who justify and promote such claims to culture.

Culture is perhaps the most important element of nationalism. It maintains a close relationship with thought and power. Seemingly, homogenization of intellectual space and practice is one of the mainstays of narrow nationalism, which subverts all other forms of voice. The recent arrests of activists, lawyers and intellectuals are a case in point, where the state uses its legitimate power to suppress dissent or alternative articulations of history and culture.

When it comes to Assam, we see a much-organized army of scholars who have constantly lent their support for the NRC process. They have homogenized the intellectual space with their singular views. In doing so, they imitate the ideals of European national self-determination without contextualizing it. Similar to the cases of Africa, the Arab world and the Caribbean, sub-nationalist thoughts in Assam led to chauvinism and reactionary populism. Intellectuals in Assam now give a boost to such trends, while at the same time denying and ignoring altogether questions of caste, religion, class and human rights.

However, they have not been able to define who is an Assamese and instead have painted the state with a wide brush of homogeneity. They seek to create a literacy of that identity by pushing our public memory back to 1951 (when the NRC was instituted to control immigration and changing demography) and 1826 (when Assam came under British colonial rule) and create an Assamese self that is very communal and xenophobic in nature.

They have gone to the extent of misarticulating Assamese as an opposition to a Bengali or Muslim self – popularly termed a “Bangladeshi.” Such regressive and chauvinistic politics generates a lot of social distinctions over the human interiors of Assamese culture. The lack of definition also creates a certain ambiguity, which leaves a lot of room for exploitation, particularly by the ultra-nationalist.

Historian C L R James warned about trends of nativism within the Negro revolution, which carried the possibilities of nationalism becoming reductive. India’s iconic poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore also was very critical about nationalism, of its “worship, triumphalism and militancy.” In the powerful writings of W E B Du Bois one finds an exemplary critique of “reverse racism,” among others, which has become a popular trend, not only in Assam but in the entire Northeast as well. Like Du Bois, Franz Fanon also warned about colonial mimicry. Intellectual practice in Assam also suffers from such reverse racism and mimicry.

Enormous amounts of ink have been spilled by intellectuals to prove the sanctity of the NRC process. Little did they realize that they have turned the NRC into a “social machine” to produce citizens. They have made truth claims about the absence of caste atrocities, toxic social distinctions and everyday violence. This attempt continues since the Assam movement, spearheaded by various political, literary and civil society bodies.

“Homogeneity, literacy and anonymity” are the hallmarks of nationalism. The case of Assam shows that it has in fact become possible, where the intellectuals have played an active part in manufacturing an identity and culture that seeks to dominate and dehumanize others.

In projecting homogeneity and lending naive support to the NRC, the intellectuals undermine all other ways of life – worlds to which Assamese culture owes a debt. The several autonomous movements led by various groups such as Bodos, Mishings, and Koch-Rajbonshis, among others, are enough proof of discrimination within the fold of caste in Assamese society and organized politics.

Such a practice indicates a “non-intellectual position” held by intellectuals, swayed by emotions and xenophobia, which now clouds the intellectual space of Assam. They have forgone the responsibility to think and have, in fact, become a mouthpiece of cultural forces, which seek to assert dominance over other groups. In this linkage of intellectuals with the institutions and chauvinist forces, one can witness a promotion of the dominant culture with caste and racial distinctions.

Under such a grip of intellectual practice, a homogenous life world of Assam finds adequate mention by destroying all others forms of storytelling. The homogenous nature of intellectual practice in Assam, on the backdrop of the NRC, shows how it stands by nativism, takes pride in one culture and ignores chauvinistic triumphalism.

To agree with Du Bois, the price of culture is indeed a lie.

Suraj Gogoi

Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the National University of Singapore.

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